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Thirty-Five Years in the FIFO Loop

By Harry Morton

It’s 1985 in Useless Loop, Western Australia.

You’re working a six-month FIFO job doing 12-hour shifts with no rostered days off. Your room is a little box with an old bone rattler air conditioner in the corner, no fridge and only the communal toilet block to do your business in. The site is a salt mine on the coast, it’s not stinking hot like it gets inland, but the humidity is high. There’s salt everywhere. In your sweat, in yours eyes and in your clothes. Your tools rust quickly and vehicles only last about six-months before being written off.

shell beach shark bay

This was the life of Shutdowns worker Steve Parsons nearly thirty-five years ago, as an eighteen-year-old on his first fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) swing.

“Basically the job I had I was working for Clough Engineering and we built a Washery Plant and a conveyor to a ship loader so they could load salt out to the ships up at Useless Loop, it’s called Shark Bay Salt.”

Having lived the majority of his life in Perth, Steve started off doing some drive-in, drive-out work in Kalgoorlie before landing his first FIFO gig. We laughed as he reflected on what it was like in the early days of his career.

“The work was a lot harder because you didn’t have the equipment, like manitous and forklifts, I mean they had a crane out there and that’s about all I can remember of it…I’d met a girl probably twelve months before that, I distinctly remember going down to the phone box at the campsite and spending dollar after dollar, being a teenager you know what it’s like.”

At the end of the six-month block, Steve told the story of getting a personal charter out of camp after a mix-up that lead to the Unions stepping in to help.

“By the end of that six months we had to get that piece of equipment commissioned and running so I still remember doing pretty much a thirty-five hour shift at the end of the job to get it tested and running…I was pretty knackered after that one, you couldn’t get away with that now a days with Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S).”

“The flight out was on a Cessna four-seater from Useless Loop to Geraldton. When I went to leave after my swing, they’d overbooked the plane and I didn’t get a seat. This was still a Union site at this stage, so they jumped up and down and got Clough Engineering to charter an extra plane, sent it to pick me up and just me and the pilot flew back to Geraldton and then to Perth. It was my girlfriend at the times 18th birthday and I had to get back to Perth for that…I still remember falling asleep in my dinner.”

Experiences like these may be familiar to those who were working FIFO at the time but are likely very foreign to anyone new to the industry. The changes over the past thirty-five years to FIFO work have been huge. Despite taking a twenty-year break to raise his family in Perth, Steve returned to the industry eight years ago, admittedly attracted by the money which today he says “you’re not really making much more than you were at home.”

When asked what’s changed the most, Steve says it’s definitely the safety aspect.

“There was no OH&S basically when you’re working out there, you got the job done, in shorts and t-shirts, no heavy work boots. I remember a job I had to do up there, I had to weld some brackets underneath a conveyor belt that ran up to the ship loader about 100ft in the air. We had no EWPs and bugger all in the way of equipment, they gave us a rope, so I tied it from one end to the other, tensioned it and used it to walk along underneath this conveyer to weld the stuff. There’s no way you’d get away with that today.”

“I went back to Useless Loop probably 10 years ago now, even that was before a lot of the OH&S stuff, any of the equipment up there you could just hop in and drive. Nowadays if you want to use stuff right down to the vehicles you need a VOC for it, it makes life a lot harder.”

Safety compliance is a major part of the industry today and accounts for most of the checks workers must repeatedly go through before getting on site.

“It’s all the paperwork I think now a days that starts to get you down. Everything you do you have to get permits for…it starts to drive you nuts after a while.”

This frustration may be resolved as many businesses in the resources industry are beginning to prioritize digital innovation as a serious step moving forward. Companies such as MyPass are offering solutions to simplify the paper trail of workers and get everything online, in one place.

Steve echoed the need for these services, saying “I’d like to see them do more of the paperwork online, everyone has phones, why can’t they run apps where you just fill in your Take Five or your JHA?”

Today, he works a 3:1 roster at BHP’s Mulla Mulla camp about 120km north of Newman (WA). He says the accommodation at camp now is a long way from what it was years ago, housing up to 5000 workers with further expansion underway. It boasts gym equipment and has construction of squash courts & virtual golf underway, all rooms have ensuites and WIFI is accessible everywhere.

The three weeks on, one week off roster has proven to work well for Steve. He says that after three weeks you start to settle in and get into the rhythm of things, then before you know it, you get to go home to see family.

“It makes a whole lot of difference morale-wise”, he said.

After doing a 4:1 stint before Christmas in 2018, Steve found the final week became a drag and he just wanted to get home. Meanwhile, he can’t see himself earning enough money on a 2:2 roster to justify being out there, as you only end up working half the year.

With his current contract looking to wrap up around August, Steve will wait until then to look around for new opportunities. In the past, he’s locked in a new job in advance and found himself “sitting on your bum” unable to work as the mobilize date gets pushed back.

Steve’s unique experience of the FIFO industry then and now provides an interesting perspective on just how much the industry has changed in the past decades.

Thanks to Steve Parsons for sharing his story. If you or someone you know has their own unique experience of working in the resources industry, please reach out to our team as we’d love to hear from you. Contact: hmorton@mypassglobal.com

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